For the last few years, whenever I teach modulations, the song “Love On Top” (Beyoncé Knowles/Terius Nash/Shea Taylor) is brought up by students. It’s a modulating tour-de-force insomuch as it moves through five keys with surprising swiftness, and it doesn’t hurt that modulations like this are uncommon in R&B.
As impressive as it is, there’s just one trick used four times. Here’s how it goes.
The song’s opening key is C Major, and its intro establishes a chord progression that will be used (with slight shifts of the rhythm of the A♭Maj7 – Gm7 chords) throughout the song in its verse, chorus, and a transition that follows the chorus. There’s a contrasting “pre-chorus” that leads to the first chorus only… we’ll ignore that since it doesn’t touch the modulating sections. The progression looks like this:
The song begins with the following sections:
In C Major: Intro ||: Verse – Pre-chorus • Chorus • Transition :|| (repeat is omitted in video)
At the end of the transition, though, the key changes. A little blip of discordant music (at 1:39 of the video, 3:00 of the CD) occurs at this point, going by so quickly that most people wouldn’t notice it. What happens is that the singer changes key before the accompaniment does; the melody is in the key of D♭ for its pick-up, even though it is wholly dissonant against the Gm7 harmony.
Now the chorus is repeated in D♭ Major, only now each chord’s root is a half-step higher than before. As the chorus reaches its last note, D♭, its pitch works like a leading-tone to a new tonic as the music modulates up a half-step to D Major.
After one more pass of the chorus, now in D Major, a third modulation up a half-step occurs, bringing the music to E♭Major. Then again, the whole procedure is repeated, bringing the music to E Major, where it ends.
A long discussion could be had as to why this makes the music so impressive to hear. One aspect may be the virtuosity involved in singing through these “gear-shift modulations.” Another may be the effect that the higher pitches have on Beyoncé’s voice, forcing her to sing a highest pitch of B above the treble staff, much more impressive than it would have been four half-steps lower in the original key.
The abruptness of these modulations may have something to do with it as well. Ken Stephenson, in his book What To Listen For in Rock, describes several “phrase-rhythm models,” with the traditional model being a phrase that begins at the start of a four-bar unit and ends on the fourth bar’s downbeat (like “I’ve been workin’ on the railroad, all the live-long DAY”). Love On Top constantly (except in that pre-chorus I glossed over before) features the “overlap” model,” in which each phrase ends on the fifth downbeat of a four-bar cycle. Since the tag “you put my love on TOP” ends on the first downbeat of a chord-cycle, it is implied that it will provide a kind of resolution; instead, the moment is infused with a fresh harmony, “remote” as a key but clear in its half-step ascent.